On a literary national myth

68907_goldsmithtrinity1A post from Ireland.

Ireland’s academic ranking has taken a dive in the most recent OECD study on international student performance. Since 2000, the country’s students have dropped from 15th to 25th place in the OECD world ranking for maths, and from 9th to 13th in science. Ireland has never seen itself as particularly strong in maths, and the government has invested significant money in science knowing that it’s an area that needs improving. But it’s the drop in English that has been the most shocking: Irish students have fallen from 5th to 17th place.

While obviously no-one is thrilled about the drop in ranking in science and maths, it’s the reading that really hurts. It’s hard news to bear for a nation that prides itself on literacy. Since I arrived here ten days ago, I’ve seen the grave of Jonathon Swift, a library that has medical texts close to four-hundred years old, a caddish statue of Oscar Wilde, the James Joyce museum, and the book of Kells. I’m writing this in a pub around the corner from Eyre Square. Dublin is a one of only four UNESCO Cities of Literature.

On Newstalk radio yesterday afternoon, the commentator was distraught that such a fall in standards could have occurred. ‘We’re a country that reads more newspapers of almost any other,’ he cried. ‘No, we’re not,’ his guest ____ quietly but firmly corrected him. ‘We’re the country of the Christian Brothers, the Jesuits, we have a long and proud history of great readers and writers,’ he declared. ____ answered that such national myths were not helpful in the face of such clear and compelling facts. Ouch…

His second guest was kinder, but only just. ‘For a long time we believed we were a literate nation, but we were only comparing ourselves to ourselves. Now we are being compared to the rest of Europe and we need to accept that our standards do not stack up.’

Perhaps it is a case of resting on one’s laurels. Ireland does have a great literary tradition. But literacy, like any cultural and social currency, needs to be actively supported and nurtured. Yes, the Irish must go back to the drawing board on curriculum. But what the report has highlighted is the absence of this support in the home. I wasn’t entirely surprised to hear that only 60% of fifteen-year-olds read for pleasure; I suspect that it would be a similar statistic in Australia, and was probably the case in the mid nineties when I was that age. The finger is, as usual, being pointed at television; and certainly questions to need be asked when 45% of nine-year-olds have a television in their bedroom. What are the consequences for children who have unfettered access to TV? But simple things like having books in the home, having children seeing their parents reading the paper, and parents reading to their kids from a young age. Not exactly brain surgery. But the absence of such things points to the gap between the reality and myth of a literary Ireland.

Obviously the ramifications for a nation that wants to be known as a Knowledge Nation are economically important. In the absence of manufacturing or resources, it must be able to sell its people as its greatest strength. But it is the personal element that will move this nation to invest more in its schools; Ireland believes itself to hold a clever people. I suspect it will be this that moves Ireland to invest more in education and reading programs, not the fear of a competitive global market.

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  1. I have a lovely green hardback called Dictionary of Irish Literature (1979). Editor-in-chief, Robert Hogan says in his preface: “In planning this dictionary, the most difficult editorial question to resolve has been how to treat literature written in the Irish language. Such literature is centuries-old and continues to be written, albeit in a trickle, even today. The range of that literature, from saga to satire, is broad indeed, and the quality of much of that literature is brilliant. However, the fortunes of the Irish language have been wedded to the fortunes of the Irish nation … [T]he great works of modern Irish literature have been written in English. It is also lamentably true that the classic works of the Irish language are to perceived, even by the Irish themselves, mainly through their influence on modern Irish writing in English … After all, W.B.Yeats, James Stephens, and James Joyce are the mirrors in which the entire world, including Ireland itself, sees reflected the old Ireland that was.”

    School just hasn’t caught up with the new kids, their learning or their literacy I think. Interesting article, thanks Louise.

  2. It is indeed a wonderful experience to visit a city like Dublin where books and writing appears to be cherished. But did we, on our recent trip, see people on public transport with books in their hands as we commonly do on trains in Melbourne? No we did not. They were all plugged into iPods.

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